March 27, 2013
Our Not-so-great Debates
Can the hope of Easter quell Christian Quarreling?
Every Sunday for the past few weeks, I have set my DVR to record the History Channel’s new miniseries The Bible. Chances are, you’ve been watching too—the first episode had 13.1 million viewers. After a lifetime of having to endure “artistic” retellings of biblical narratives, from “The Ten Commandments” to “Godspell,” I sat down to watch the first episode with reasonable trepidation.
But I was pleasantly surprised. True, the series neglected some fairly important stories (the life of Joseph comes to mind), but it also included insightful nuances that had me rechecking my own Bible, like when the angels blinded the crowd in Sodom to allow the escape of Lot and his family. As the series has progressed, the unfortunate divergences from the original text have increased. Still, it earnestly drives home the major points of the grand biblical story: the Fall, God’s covenant with Israel, Israel’s repeated rebellion and punishment, and the Messianic prophecies fulfilled in Jesus.
My own mixed reception is expressed in the more polarized attitudes of other viewers. Some find the series’ errors damning; others are willing to look past radical omissions for the sake of its evangelistic potential. But I’ve heard one common theme among Christian viewers of the series: all seem to watch it with one finger critically tracing key texts in Scripture. If only they did the same when confronting each other over the series’ merits.
Debates and quarrels
Debates are common amongst evangelicals. Our diversity and passion prime us for it. The current face of Christianity was chiseled by the disputes of the past, and the fruits of those internal debates include orthodoxy, orthopraxy, and resilient faith that can stand in the face of external attack. Debates are good.
The gospels are filled with the debates of Jesus, lively exchanges with some who “got it” and some who didn’t. In his second letter to Timothy, Paul anticipates that Christian leaders will engage in debate. But he warns against quarrels. What distinguishes the two? He writes:
Don’t have anything to do with foolish and stupid arguments, because you know they produce quarrels. And the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but must be kind to everyone, able to teach, not resentful. Opponents must be gently instructed, in the hope that God will grant them repentance leading them to a knowledge of the truth (2 Timothy 2:23–25).
Debates are characterized by kindness and gentle instruction. Quarrels are foolish, resentful arguments.
Peter encourages dialogue with those who question our fundamental beliefs, saying, “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have.” But he also dictates a tone for these debates: “Do this with gentleness and respect … so that those who speak maliciously against your good behavior in Christ may be ashamed of their slander” (1 Peter 3:15–16).
If Peter calls for “gentleness and respect” in debates with those who don’t follow Christ, how can we expect anything less in our disagreements with fellow Christians? Yet a quick glance at Christian dialogue reveals far more quarrels than gentle debates. If you want a front row seat to a cage fight, pop some popcorn and read the comments on a Christian blog that covers debatable topics. You won’t be disappointed.
When tightly-held beliefs are questioned, tempers flare—especially when those attacks come from fellow believers. I’m as prone to this as anyone. I can move from docile to “attack-mode” in the time it takes to say, “I’m a Cal-menian.” It’s easy to be hot-headed when God’s truth is on the line. But if we want to follow the instructions of Peter and Paul and the example of Jesus, we must find ways to cool our anger before it lashes out.
What’s the bucket of ice water to calm our defensive rage? I’m not going to suggest that we all drop our disagreements in service of a watered-down “faith” that is of little practical value. I’m also not going to recommend that we hold peripheral beliefs a little looser (although it wouldn’t hurt)—I doubt we could all agree on which beliefs are and aren’t essential, anyways.
Instead, I’m going to recommend that we open our eyes to the current season of the church year. As Easter approaches, Christians of all traditions reflect on the crucifixion, death, and resurrection of Jesus. I was once told that, at the foot of the cross, we’re all on an even playing field. How true that is. Picture yourself on your knees before Christ on the cross. Imagine yourself in the silence before his stone-closed tomb. Envision yourself as Thomas, confronted by the risen Lord in his tangible glory. Can you see yourself clambering and clawing with your fellow believers for the intellectual high ground in any of these scenarios?
In the shadow of the cross
I remember with stinging clarity the time when a friend asked me, “Do you always have to be right?” The comment hurt. At first I got defensive: Of course I do! Should I start trying to be wrong? But after letting it sink in, I realized that the comment had more to do with my tone. I cared more about proving others wrong than proving myself right.
During Easter season I’m reminded that I live in a post-Easter world. Every day, we live in light of the historical reality of Holy Week. As I reflect on Christ’s actions during Holy Week, an amazing truth is revealed. On Maundy Thursday Christ dropped to his knees and washed his followers’ feet. On Good Friday he suffered and died for us while we still opposed him. We serve a humble God. And humility should define his followers.
That doesn’t mean we should stop defending his truth in conversation with believers and unbelievers. But godly debate is not focused on proving that I’m right and the other person is wrong. It’s about weighing ideas in a genuine search for truth, with the other person’s best interests in mind. As Christians bicker in anger, others are watching. Can we reframe our internal dialogue to better represent Christ? The world needs an example of godly debate, now more than ever.
I’ll reserve my verdict of The Bible until I’ve watched the final few episodes. But I pray that as I dialogue about subjects both minor (like the merit of a well-produced miniseries) and major (like the role of Christians in the broader culture) I will debate with gentleness and respect. Like those eagle-eyed television viewers, I hope I will always have one finger following along in the Bible, reminding me that all of my knowledge is second-hand. Our Christian debates take place in the shadow of the cross. Let’s conduct them accordingly.
Kyle Rohane is editorial resident with Leadership Journal.